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This Silicon Valley Billionaire Wants to Give Us All Robot Bodies

My surreal meeting with robotics pioneer Scott Hassan.

"Here" is a funny word. So says Scott Hassan, the media-shy Silicon Valley billionaire who once set out to build the first fully autonomous humanoid robot, and ended up hawking what looks like a flatscreen atop two long legs with wheels. If Hassan has his way, this seemingly simple device—called a Beam—will close the loop between cyberspace and meat-space.

The Beam was designed as a video conferencing tool, allowing instant, face-to-face communication—kind of like FaceTime or Skype, except you can drive the screen on legs around the room remotely, with a keyboard. It could one day become much more. Those with disabilities can have access to a rudimentary body that allows them to go where they otherwise can't. (Edward Snowden has famously used one in his public appearances.) As Beams proliferate, you could transport yourself over to visit a family member across the country, or to tour Paris or Hong Kong for the afternoon. There has been speculation that the Beam might even eventually sprout arms, making it more like a body. Hassan won't confirm these rumours, but he won't deny them either.

In a future where we can zap ourselves over the internet into different robot bodies around the world, "here" won't just be here anymore, Hassan believes. It'll be anywhere.

The Beam, made by Suitable Technologies. Image: Intel Free Press/Flickr

Recently, while visiting my family in Halifax, I beamed into Hassan's office in Palo Alto, where Suitable Technologies Inc., the company that makes the Beam, is based. I found him there waiting for me, gazing intently into the camera of the Beam I was manipulating. Hassan is extremely alert and attentive, and comes across as an over-caffeinated genius: generous with his ideas, but also impatient that you keep up. He rarely does interviews, though he's one of the most important figures in modern robotics.

Hassan was an early investor in Google and is credited with contributing to the original code for the search engine. In 2006, after a series of other exploits in high tech, he decided to invest in his own robotics research laboratory, Willow Garage.

The team there created the PR2, an iconic humanoid robot that has become an important research platform for artificial intelligence. For example, PR2 made the news last year for learning how to make a pancake by reading a recipe off of the internet.

The PR2 has also been known to make lattes, play pool and fetch beer, do the laundry (almost), play with Lego, and scoop dog poop. Not bad.

If you could beam into a PR2, that would really get people excited

Despite all those feats, Hassan ultimately became disillusioned with autonomous robots: they're expensive to build, and although AI can now beat humans at Go and perform other impressive feats, they're still not as smart as real people. "Computers are fabulous, but they're nothing compared to the human brain," he told me.

Creating a robot that accurately and quickly responds to voice instructions and performs simple tasks is still extremely difficult. He illustrated this by asking me to nudge a wastebasket under a chair with my Beam, which I was able to do by driving into it. "It would take hundreds and hundreds of PhDs in computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering to build a system that does that," he told me.

"There are billions of people on the planet, so why not do it with people as the intelligence," he asked, instead of an artificial system?

It's easy to envision Beam-like devices with more appendages and more sensors than just wheels and a camera, so workers could do more than just roll around and talk. If you could beam into a PR2, that would really get people excited.

The PR2 robot. Image: Jiuguang Wang/Flickr

Right now, the action the Beam offers is still rudimentary: moving around a flat, uncomplicated space. The most obvious application is working from home: the Beam store in Palo Alto is staffed by people beaming in from around the country. Real estate agents give tours, business executives visit factories, people go to conferences, all on the Beam, according to a report in Time.

For people with disabilities, access to a Beam body could be transformative. Henry Evans, a quadriplegic engineer and speaker, uses the Beam as an assistive device to go where he otherwise couldn't. Hassan is hoping that the Americans with Disabilities Act will eventually include a rule that makes the Beam a necessary accessibility tool in government buildings, just like a wheelchair ramp.

Another goal is tele-tourism. "We want to put them in all the cool sites around the world and allow you to Beam in," he told me. Imagine activating a Beam at the pyramids, Machu Picchu, or the Taj Mahal, from your bedroom.

But he also thinks that even if that dream is realized, it won't stop people from traveling in real life. The truth is that, no matter how good it gets, beaming in will never be as good as experiencing something first-hand.

One day, we might even be able to beam up to a space station, orbiting Earth. If "here" is anywhere, why not up there?